My Evening with the In Crowd

by Susan Kirchman

Editor's Note: On the SPOT is a new column. We will feature first-hand, often light-hearted accounts of the writers' travels and experiences all of which will focus on photography.
My first response to being invited to attend the black-tie sit-down dinner opening celebration of the new Getty Museum was, "Darn! I can't go!" The opening was to be December 10th, six days before the museum would officially open to the public. I didn't think I would be able to get out to Santa Monica in time because of my teaching schedule.
My second response was, "I can't not go!" I rationalized this with a big dose of, "I owe it to my students." Although I am not an architect, I teach photography in a college of architecture. My friend, Tom Linehan, has served on the advisory committee for the Getty Information Program, rated an invitation and asked me to be his guest. After two minutes of thought, I decided to attend the opening of the $1 billion, six building complex, designed by Richard Meier, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean on a 24 acre hilltop in southern California.
I had no problem getting my formal attire together; luckily I had just attended a black-tie event the month before. Therefore, I had the dress, the shoes, the black hose, the jewelry, the jacket and the beaded evening bag which was just big enough to hold the digital camera that I had just purchased. I read the camera instruction booklet on the plane, and I was ready to take my first digital pictures at the new Getty.
The museum had been featured in every architectural publication I had read that month, and I was very excited about experiencing the architecture, the landscaping and, of course, the art.
As we arrived at the appointed time and turned into the entrance to the Getty Museum parking garage, I noticed that it looked a bit like a bank vault cut into the side of a hill. A covey of uniformed attendants exchanged the car for a ticket stub, and we walked the short distance to the tram. Tom looked very distinguished in his tuxedo, but we were but two of the fabulously dressed crowd. I felt fashion-security in my already-tested sleek black dress and accessories. I knew that even my shoes were comfortable in spite of their strappiness. This was important because I wanted to see as much as I could in all six buildings. It was 6:30 p.m. and the view as we rode up the tram was glittering with holiday lights in the surrounding suburbs of Brentwood, Bel Air and Century City.
We started up the grand staircase to the dramatic glass entrance of the main arrival plaza. It was then that I realized that something was amiss with... my outfit. I tried to take in the gorgeous drama of the night-lit scene but was distracted by the gnawing realization that my thigh-high stockings were acting like they would rather be anklets! Instead of taking in the splendor of the scene, this monument to high culture, I found myself hobbling across the expansive foyer, obsessed with finding the closest women's room. Some sleek black dresses might be long enough to camouflage such a fashion faux pas but mine was slit-to-there on the left side. I made my way through the elegant crowd while grabbing and clutching my sagging hose, trying to keep them from landing around my ankles.
Passing the bevy of servers, each offering large silver trays filled with bubbling glasses of champagne, I finally found my sanctuary. Once inside the marble-fix-tured, many-mirrored women's rest-room, I proceeded to chant a long string of profanity aimed at my decision to forego ordinary panty hose in favor of the more sleek-lined thigh highs. One of the other guests sympathetic to my plight offered to find safety pins. Safety pins in black stockings? So much for fashion planning! Somehow the pins worked. My trauma averted, I was able to join Tom and the crowd who were enjoying hors d'oeuvres and drinks in the main entry pavilion.
The champagne was cold and delicious; the yellow fin tartare, served by a tag team, was fabulous! The first server held a silver tray arranged with linen and an array of silver spoons, each with one bite of delectably fresh fish with onion, ground pepper and olive oil. After I popped the bite size morsel into my mouth, the other member of the server tag team appeared with a silver tray covered with linen and roses. This tray was designed for one to discreetly slide the used spoon between the layers of linen. I did the tag team routine several times; the fish was truly scrumptious!
A large sweeping staircase with a landing is suspended within the main entrance hall. Here the museum director stood to introduce the architect and other Getty dignitaries. I shot the first frame on my new digital point-and-shoot camera of Richard Meier making comments from his balcony. He moved too fast for the camera's shutter speed and is therefore a bit blurry; but I like this shot as a souvenir of my evening. To view the over 200 high quality color images of the Getty Center, log in to the Internet Web site at <www. reed.edu/gettyarchitecture>.
Later, someone introduced me to someone who looked just like Richard Meier. Realizing the mistake, the man said, "You must think that I am someone who I am not." It turns out that this person was the CEO of a major art book publishing company. This was, after all, a who's-who crowd. Actually I did meet the real Mr. Meier before the evening was over, so I was able to tell my students that I had the honor.
In retrospect I wish that I had studied the museum map and went straight for the art that I didn't want to miss. Instead, Tom and I wandered off in the direction of some of the galleries, enjoying the majesty of the building along the way.
The museum is made up of five interconnected pavilions that cluster around gardens, pools and fountains in a central courtyard. Each pavilion has two levels of gallery space. Each gallery was specifically designed for its collection by Thierry Despont who recently did the interior of Bill Gates' new home. Each pavilion also includes interactive learning spaces where patrons can explore related materials.
One of our first stops was the Masterpieces of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Illumination exhibition. This exhibit consisted of 42 manuscripts from the collection assembled by the Getty Museum since 1983 and spans the 10th to the 16th century. These exquisite books, painted with gold, silver and precious pigments, are magnificent and are wonderfully displayed.
The evening was unseasonably cold and very very windy. I had hoped to see the spectacular three-acre Central Garden created by California artist, Robert Irwin, but a gale was out there ó way too cold for those of us in our slit-to-there evening attire.
The guests were led to the tent where long dining tables were elegantly set. Big tunnels of warm air piped in made the tent quite pleasant inside. The guests had all received envelopes with table assignments, and Tom and I had the impressive "Table One" inscribed in beautiful calligraphy. My table neighbors were one of the six Getty program directors and the director of a large San Francisco art museum. Needless to say the company was stimulating, and dinner was great ó sea bass and lobster.
After dinner the guests were invited to the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities where many artifacts were presented for our perusal. This center is an advanced research center dedicated to the study of past and present cultures, especially as they are manifest through the visual arts. The Research Institute consists of the research library that includes a 7,000 volume collection of books, serials and auction catalogues, almost two million study photographs, and specialized archival and other rare materials on the history of art and the humanities. The Institute also has the scholars and seminars program that invites international scholars to the Institute to conduct research; a publications program, that publishes previously untranslated texts, new editions of classic works, current scholarly debate, and materials form the research collections; and public programs, which includes exhibitions, lectures, conferences and performances. Information on the collection is available electronically through the Research Institute's online catalogue, IRIS, that is accessible via the web site at <www.getty.edu/gri>. Click on Research Library.
After the viewing at the Research Institute, a dessert and espresso buffet was served ó yet another culinary extravaganza! Tom and I left the Getty, having gained several pounds, two big safety pins and, of course, the unforgettable experience of being in this spectacular setting for this inaugural occasion. I am anxious for my next visit when I will wear sensible shoes (and hose) and map out my plan of attack to not miss certain things: the Central Garden, van Gogh's Irises and, of course, the fine collection of photographs from artists ranging from Nadar to David Hockney. ï
Susan Kirchman is an installation artist who teaches photography in the college of architecture at Texas A & M University in College Station, Texas.

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